The Pirates bullpen this year has resembled more of a triage unit than a collective of gentlemen skilled in the eldritch arts of throwing a baseball. Outside of the splendid Felipe Vazquez, everyone has either been hurt or struggled for a portion of the year.
Except Francisco Liriano.
After a very shaky Opening Day, where he gave up a hit and a walk in that meltdown 7th inning for the pen, Liriano has been resplendent. He has given up runs in only one appearance (the two against Oakland on May 3rd) and has been wildly effective in all the others.
His surface line is very shiny — that 0.95 ERA jumps off the page, as do the 22 K’s in 19 innings. His K% of 27.9 is the highest since his halycon days of 2005 and 2006 as a Twin. The swinging strike percentage of 15.5% also harkens back to those days.
But if you peel back the surface layer, you can see via Statcast how dominant Liriano has been. His hard hit percentage of 13.6% is 3rd lowest in all of baseball. Teammate Kyle Crick is just ahead of him at 13.3% and both trail Trevor May’s 11.1%. Combine that with an exit velocity of 83.6 mph that 16th best in MLB and you start to see why he’s been so effective.
Liriano has always been wild. It’s amazing he’s been as successful as he’s been in his career with an array of pitches that are basically never close to the zone. Look at this 93 mph fastball he got the righty Yairo Munoz to strike out on yesterday:
That’s after the 2nd pitch was basically a crotch shot that Munoz had to jump away from, too.
His money pitch has always been the slider, but this year his changeup has seen a dramatic uptick in usage to 27.5%, a career-high in usage. It has led to devastating results, as batters are just 2 for 21 against it this year.
When healthy, Crick has been very solid in the 8th inning, so there’s not a crying need to push Liriano into the setup role. It’s further complicated by the fact that pairing the lefty Liriano with the lefty Vazquez would lead to some matchup issues. But until (hopefully) Nick Burdi and Keone Kela get themselves right, Liriano should cement that 7th inning role while he’s off to such a great start.
Papa Francisco is now 35. His first go-round with the Pirates didn’t end very well. I’m not sure if you’ve heard this, but the Pirates made a little bit of controversial trade when they shipped Liriano to Toronto (along with two fringe prospects) for Drew Hutchison. I know…it didn’t really get talked about much around these parts. He wandered the baseball landscape and ran into a World Series ring with the Astros in 2017. But his 2018 was not great and he ended up back here on a minor league deal with no guarantees of making the roster. But he did and he’s been great.
Liriano has been the quiet piece in the bullpen so far. Not many players get a chance to re-write a second chapter with a team. Liriano has and the voodoo-cursed 2019 Pirates are better for it.